The smoke is less profuse than it was the day before. Jo can breathe freely, without fearing grit becoming caught between her teeth. In the distance, she can see the rise and fall of mountains, blue like ocean waves, capped with sea foam.
Jo weaves through a growing swell of early risers. Their faces are gray, gray, gray; the color of ash, and the ground, and the storm clouds knitting together overhead. They walk with their eyes trained at the sky, and they’re so quick to lift one foot off the ground, the other barely has time to keep stride.
Jo could taste the fear and feels it settle in the pit of her stomach. The cobbled road is slick with last night’s rain, and Jo has to walk carefully not to slip. She can feel her gaze sliding towards the heavens, and quietly wishes she chose any color other than red in which to dress today.
She gets looks. People previously fixated on the sky suddenly swivel to watch her as she walks by. There lies the difference between them and those at home; they can sniff out a stranger like dogs on a hunt.
“I don’t know you,” says an elder woman, sitting alone on an old rocking chair, shaded from the sky by an awning, “where are you off to in such a hurry?”
Jo fumbles to a stop. She sucks in her cheek, then forces a tight-lipped smile.
“I’m looking for The Queen’s Inn,” she says, “could you point the way?”
The woman scrunches her nose, her glare as bitter as a shriveled apple seed, “You are on the right path already. Where do you come from?”
“I am here about the dragon,” Jo says, “I come from Sol.”
“A booger fresh from the nose of the capital, ay?” the woman snorts, “If you’re here for the monster, I have sorry news; you’re in all the wrong get-up! Will you slay the beast with a flourish of your garish hat?”
Jo shoots the woman a chilly glare, then inclines her head, “You have a good day, ma’am.”
“I will!” she calls after her, “Lemme know about that dragon, will you? Can you count how many teeth it has from inside it’s mouth?”
The inn is a shabby establishment. It’s roof sits at a steep slope, prepped to slide right off and into the muddy ground beside it. The windows are thick with grime, and the chimney is quiet. From the back, Jo can hear the stamping of a horses hooves, and that is the only sound in any direction.
She steps up to the entrance and opens the door. It creaks violently, like the retch of someone sick with the plague, revealing a dark dining room with tired patrons. Their eyes turn towards her, little bulbs of light in the dingy night.
Jo passes them by. Her heels clicking against the uneven surface of the stone floor, she strides to the counter. “I’m looking for a Carter.” She calls.
Several seconds pass, enough that Jo has retreated slightly, about to weigh her alternatives.
“That’s me.” A giant steps out from the kitchen, silencing these considerations.
He is well into his sixties, with a fraying beard and grayish skin. He tilts his head at Jo, “What can I do for you, Miss?”
“It’s doctor,” Jo says automatically. Then winces, slightly. “My name is Josephina Gundry. I’m a magic practitioner from Sol. I’ve been sent to kill the dragon.”
These brazen words don’t phase the bartender. He merely quirks a brow to the top of his very bald head. “A professional dragonslayer,” says Carter, “I was wondering when they’d send one.”
Jo does not know if that is sarcasm or not. His words are thick with an irony that she can’t decipher. “Yes.” She eventually decides. “I’m here about procuring supplies, and a guide.”
Carter does not sugarcoat things. “Do you have money?”
She reaches into her skirt pocket and withdraws a drawstring pouch. The gold inside chimes crystal clear as she tosses it onto the table. Carter eyes it for a moment, before spilling it across the counter. He counts the gold gingerly. It only takes a second. Then he smiles widely.
“Well,” he extends a hand, “congratulations, doctor, you’ve wrecked Monsbury’s economy. But you’ve also got yourself a deal.”
Jo is glad she’s wearing her gloves. “Thank you. Mind that I’ll be joined by my companion.”
“Of course,” says Carter, scooping the gold into his apron the while. “I have a duty to warn you, however, that King’s Mountain is not for the faint hearted.”
“No,” says Jo, stifling a snort, “I had actually figured that. Frankly, I was more concerned about the dragon.”
Carter chuckles dryly, “That’s what they all say. But idiots have been trying to climb that mountain for years, and more often than not, they die trying it.” He pauses for a moment, determining if Jo will become an exhibit of this. She remains steadfast, fixing him with an unblinking, determined glare. He sighs. “If it’s a guide you’re after, Angelique Peterson is making the trip herself, this week. If you speak with her in time, she might let you join her.”
“Peterson. Missing kid?”
He tenses, a grimace seizing his face. As though prying open a rusty hatch, he speaks, “Yes, that’s the one. Angelique is Susie’s sister. She is head of the farm. What remains of it, anyway.”
Jo presses, “How do you mean?”
Carter’s face pinches once more, then he sighs again, exasperated, “They’ve bit hit real hard. Worse than anyone in the area. The Peterson’s don’t really have anything left to lose. Imagine a thirty-acre ashtray,”
Jo thinks he means to say more. He does not. His eyes fix on some distant, invisible point, before he slams his hands-like-hammers on the countertop with a great finality. “Right then. I have customers that need a-tending. Where should I have your supplies delivered to?”
Having procured the location of the Peterson’s farm from the bartender, and secured a hefty amount of supplies, Jo sets forth from the Inn feeling the thrill of success; a sort of pride that beats in place of her heart. It’s enough to tide her through the dismal streets with the smallest of springs in her steps. All the way until she is intercepted.
Two gentlemen stride into her path, squaring their feet until they are as impassable seeming as a brick wall. They each wear a fine set of chainmail that gleams a vibrant silver against the dark gray of the town, and beneath that a rich velvet fabric bearing the golden seal of a noble house.
Ceremonial swords are strapped to their sides. Angry muskets are strapped to their backs. But they smile, almost consolingly, down at Jo.
“Ms. Gundry?” The rightmost one asks, flashing a golden tooth.
“That’s me,” Jo bites back the ready correction. She squares her shoulders and levies a glare at the pair of them, “what do you need?”
The gold-toothed gentleman speaks again, “The Duke has been waiting for your arrival. He requests an audience with you at his manor later this afternoon.”
“Duke Darrion Mons did not send me a request for aid; that was the mayor. I did not think that we had cause to speak.”
Jo didn’t trust the lower houses on principle. Years of parliament diminishing their power and wealth had made them bitter, and they often liked to take it out on people like her. Not just practitioners, but anyone who worked under the united power of the Queen and the Court.
The two knight’s exchange a look. The one on the left smiles, letting long, blond hair fall across his face, “Miss, I think he wishes to thank you personally. You do a great service for the people of Monsbury, and the people all across Solace. And, well,” his smile flickers, revealing an expression neighboring haughty arrogance, “you don’t refuse an audience with Duke Mons.”
Jo remains impassive. Unimpressed by the threat, she unsheathes a smile of her own, “I have refused many audiences with minor Lords and Ladies who did not send for me, because they do not trust me, because they do not trust parliament. They delay my arrival, for they think they can solve their problems with the meager resources they have horded from the land they were meant to protect. They are wrong.” Jo tips her hat, allowing it to shadow the top half of her face, “Forgive me, gentlemen. I have a job to do, one that the duke needs not dirty his hands with.”
The knights make no move to stop her as she strides off. But one glance over her shoulder confirms that they watch her as she goes. Their fists resting on the pommel of their blades.